Theatre Review: ‘Il Etait Une Fois (Once Upon a Time)’ at Théâtre du Rêve

Courtesy Theatre du Reve.

For 22 years Théâtre du Rêve (Theatre of the Dream) has been doing its part to make Atlanta the international city that it often proclaims it is by bringing French-speaking culture and theatre to the area.

The theatre was founded in 1996 by Atlanta actor Carolyn Cook; her latest project is a charming play that she has both written and directed called “Il Etait Une Fois” (Once Upon a Time), running at 7 Stages Backstage Theatre through March 25. Ms. Cook has long been one of the city’s most esteemed performers and directors; this is her first foray into writing.

The work began as a plan to adapt the fairy tales of Charles Perrault for the stage, but Ms. Cook made a startling discovery: There were aristocratic women of the 17th Century who met in salons and created the very concept of the written fairy tale. One of them, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, even coined the name “fairy tale.”

In fact, Countess d’Aulnoy wrote the piece “Finette Cendron,” on which Ms. Cook based her play. The countess and other salon hostesses used fairy tales to indirectly criticize the patriarchy and make other pertinent points—such as how women of the time could seldom marry for love. “It turns out they were using magical tales to imagine and argue for a social order where women had greater influence,” writes Ms. Cook. “Risky business during the reign of Louis XIV.”

Let me quickly add that English supertitles are projected over the stage for non-French speakers—so not to worry if your college French is rusty or non-existent. On the night I attended, however, it was interesting to notice that quite a few audience members did indeed understand French—some better than others, of course.

“Il Etait Une Fois” contains a touch of Cinderella, and bits of other legendary stories waft in and out the 75-minute evening. Three fine French-speaking actors guide us on an enchanted journey: Natalie Karp, as Madame de St.-Aignan; Eliana Marianes as Madame d’Aulnoy; and Jennifer Schottstaedt as Mademoiselle Bernard.

You can close your eyes and be transported from the 7 Stages Backstage Theatre to some quaint little stage in Paris as these three talented performers enact their stories. Another lovely bonus is that this play is perfect for all ages; if you have children who are studying French (or even if they’re not), they will be transported to another century, and a baroque ambience that will fascinate them. The same goes for the adults.

But don’t close your eyes very long: You’ll miss Barrett Doyle’s colorful, inventive scenic design as well as Jennifer Schottstaedt’s lush costumes. You will also miss the expert acting and the subtle comic alertness that the performers display, all under the seamless direction of Ms. Cook.

The raison d’être for the evening is not to be compelled by high drama (although you will certainly be entertained), but rather to appreciate, as the theatre PR says, that “Once upon a time there were women who found a way to defy the most powerful ruler on earth, simply by telling their own stories. Prepare to be transported to the France of Louis XIV, where women used the wonder of fairy tales to show that sometimes, the damsel in distresss can rescue herself.”

I’m happy to report that performances are very close to selling out, so I encourage you to get tickets quickly and rejoice that you live in a city where such esoteric (a bit), wonderful entertainment may be found.

For more information and tickets, visit theatredureve.com,

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